One of the most recognizable environmental symbols is a green triangle made of arrows representing recycling. You know the one:
The symbol is so familiar that it’s often used as a stand-in for green behavior. But recycling is not the best we can do. Consider companies that send old computers and phones for recycling to countries with lax enforcement of environmental laws, where children pick through toxic metals. Or the fact that even some recycled plastics can ultimately end up in a landfill or incinerator, since they become degraded or unusable after just one recycling.
What if we changed our mindset from recycling single-use products to replacing these products with those that can be reused or upcycled over and over again, before biodegrading harmlessly in the environment? In other words, what if we moved to a zero waste economy?
Companies are already catching on. Some of the most recognizable brands have embraced the notion of zero waste. In Atlanta, the Hyatt Regency upcycles its food scraps, helping to cut its garbage bill by $169,000 one year and creating useful compost as a result. An Epson factory in the UK ensures that 95% of its products don’t reach the landfill through an aggressive take-back program.
At Burt’s Bees, employees empty out their trash cans on “Dumpster Dive Day” to examine their waste stream and explore ways to reduce it:
And communities are going zero waste too. New Paltz, NY is one of 13 towns in the US with a zero waste action plan. Their unique “ReUse Center” takes donations of all kinds of materials from lumber to electronics and hosts regular educational programs on ways to reduce waste.
A zero waste mindset has to happen at the design end of the production cycle too. It starts by asking questions like: “What is this packaging made of?”, “Why do I need to replace my entire computer when it dies?”
Remember the milk man from days of yore, who would hand deliver fresh dairy products directly to people’s doorsteps? Manhattan Milk certainly does. The New York-based company decided to provide milk to their customers the old fashioned way: in reusable glass bottles that they pick up afterward. Many Canadians and Germans still get beer in reusable containers too.
Do you want to help your community or company go zero waste? Check out the EPA’s website and follow these steps:
EPA's 10 Steps to Reduce Waste
And stay tuned for Green America’s People & Planet Green Business Award winners announcement on February 1st to find out which companies are at the top of the heap when it comes to zero waste.
Special issue on zero waste, Green America
Waste is Money Down the Drain – Efficiency Boosts Bottom Line, Natural Resources Defense Council
Zero Waste Committee, Sierra Club